Absalom Willis Robertson was born in Martinsburg, West Virginia, on May 27, 1887, to Franklin Pierce Robertson, a Baptist minister, and Josephine Ragland Willis Robertson. One of six children, he was descended from three prominent Virginia families: the Digges, Gordons, and Harrisons. Robertson attended public schools in Lynchburg and Rocky Mount before enrolling in Richmond College (now the University of Richmond), where he graduated with a history degree in 1907. He compiled a distinguished academic and athletic record at Richmond: the football, tennis, and track star was also voted into Phi Beta Kappa when a chapter was established some years later.
In 1908 Robertson received a bachelor of laws degree from Richmond College. That same year he was admitted to the Virginia Bar and began practicing law in Buena Vista. He moved to Lexington in 1910. Years later he was awarded honorary doctorates in law from the University of Richmond (1943) and Washington and Lee University (1949). He became attracted to politics in 1912 during Woodrow Wilson‘s presidential campaign and committed himself to public service.
Early Political Career
Elected to the Senate of Virginia from Lexington in 1915, Robertson served on the committees of Finance, Justice, Public Institutions, and Education, but it was his involvement in the development of a state highway system that won him recognition across Virginia. Working with state senators Byrd and C. O’Conor Goolrick, he sponsored the bill that created a state highway department, served on the commission that planned the network of roads, and helped author the Robertson Road Act, which provided $14 million to assist localities in building roads that would be included in the state system. Unlike Byrd, who insisted on a “pay as you go” policy that relied on gasoline taxes to build the roads, Robertson was more tolerant of using bonds to fund the system.
In August 1917, after the United States entered into World War I (1914–1918), Robertson volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army. After completing Officers Training Camp, he was commissioned a first lieutenant of infantry. He served as assistant camp adjutant at Camp Lee and in the Adjutant General’s office in Washington, D.C. He was demobilized in June 1919, having risen to the rank of major.
In 1922, after Democratic Party leaders passed him over for a congressional seat, Robertson resigned from the state senate and for the next six years served as commonwealth’s attorney for Rockbridge County. In 1926 Byrd, then governor of Virginia, appointed Robertson chairman of the Commission on Game and Inland Fisheries, a position he held until 1932. An avid hunter and fisherman, Robertson always had a great love for the outdoors and was strongly in favor of conserving the state’s natural resources. He had been a patron of the bill creating the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and supported stronger environmental laws throughout his career.
In November 1932, Robertson was elected to the United States House of Representatives. Because the General Assembly had not appropriately redistricted the state, he was elected to an at-large seat, but in subsequent elections from 1934 to 1944, he was elected as the congressman from the Seventh District. In the House, he supported reciprocal trade agreements and conservation legislation. As chairman of the Committee on Wildlife Conservation, he sponsored the Pittman-Robertson Act to return federal taxes on guns and ammunition to the states for conservation programs. In 1937 he was appointed to the House Ways and Means Committee, which focused on tax issues.
While he opposed much of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, voting against work relief, social security, and labor legislation, Robertson backed the creation of the National Recovery Administration and the soil conservation act. He also supported the president’s preparations for World War II (1939–1945), voting in favor of naval expansion, conscription, and the Lend-Lease Act, which provided loans to countries at war with Germany. At war’s end he endorsed the United Nations; the Bretton Woods Agreements, which established a system to manage currency and exchange rates; and loans to Great Britain.
Robertson considered running for governor in 1941 and 1945, but could not win Byrd’s endorsement. When senior Virginia senator Carter Glass died in 1946, Robertson announced his candidacy for the seat. Former governor Colgate Darden and Congressman Howard W. Smith were also considered to be likely candidates; not wanting to offend close friends, Byrd—a United States senator at the time—declared his neutrality in the race. Robertson’s course to the nomination was bizarre. He enthusiastically prepared for the contest but hastily withdrew in June, fearing that the Democratic Party would draft Darden, who had originally declined to run. Robertson reassembled his campaign only to withdraw once more, in early August, out of fear that he could not win in a convention contest. Mortified, his twice-designated campaign manager, Fred Switzer, wrote his irresolute friend: “Of course, Willis, you have to run some risk in everything you do. Life is just that way; in your case I certainly think the risk is well worth the opportunity … Keep calm!”
At the Virginia Democratic State Convention in September 1946, Darden led on the first ballot with Smith second and Robertson fourth. But after Darden withdrew for the last time, many of his supporters shifted to Robertson, who won on the third ballot. Byrd was pleased with the result, primarily because he had been perceived as “entirely neutral” in the procedure. Switzer wrote to him afterward, “Sometime I want to see you so I can tell you the whole story about Willis and his campaign. It was really one of the most unusual experiences I have ever had.” Robertson easily defeated Republican nominee Robert Woods in the November election and again in 1948 for the full six-year term.
Robertson and the Byrd Organization
For the next twenty years Robertson and Byrd served together in the Senate, where they enjoyed a close personal and professional relationship. But it was not an equal partnership. Robertson was clearly subordinate to the man who controlled Virginia politics for more than forty years and he remained in Byrd’s shadow. Furthermore, Robertson was never an intimate member of the Byrd Organization’s hierarchy. His career reflected his acceptance by the machine, but over time, Robertson manifested a growing independence from the organization.
Initially Robertson was a compliant assistant. His conservative inclinations meant that he and Byrd voted together on most issues, although Robertson said Byrd told him to vote his convictions. In search of advice, or perhaps a commendation, Robertson often wrote lengthy letters to Byrd explaining his votes or his views on legislation. The junior senator conversed frequently with his mentor, sounding him out about how he was going to vote, lobbying with him on issues about which no decision had been made, and offering advice on items about which he felt he knew more than Byrd. This became more frequent: Byrd was never an involved legislator, and his attendance record could be spotty—he ranked in the lower half of the senators from 1947 to 1956; in contrast, Robertson made every effort to understand legislation, and his attendance record was among the best.
In the Senate, Robertson served on the Banking and Currency Committee, the Appropriations Committee, and as co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Defense Production. He became known as an authority on taxes, tariffs, and foreign trade, and was the primary author of the 1957 Financial Institutions Act. Predictably, he stood with Byrd against organized labor, excessive federal spending, and the civil rights agendas of Democratic presidents. They differed on foreign aid programs: Byrd voted against the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan while Robertson supported these two key pieces of Cold War containment. Robertson also proved to be more independent than Byrd desired in his reluctance to support a states’ rights rebellion in 1948, which he believed “would have split us from stem to stern.” Furthermore, he gave only lukewarm support to Byrd’s handpicked choice for governor in 1949, John S. Battle, and was not an enthusiastic advocate for the policy of Massive Resistance. For political reasons, Robertson always filibustered and voted against any civil rights legislation, and he signed the 1956 “Southern Manifesto” that was critical of the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), but privately he had reservations about the advisability of closing public schools in the 1950s.
Robertson’s estrangement from Byrd stemmed from political problems for Byrd and the organization. Robertson’s bids for reelection often coincided with important presidential elections in which Byrd had chosen to pursue a policy of “golden silence”—that is, he could not support the candidates of his own party because of their growing liberalism, but he could not openly back the Republican candidates for fear that this might undermine the Democratic organization in Virginia. His solution was to endorse no one.
Robertson, on the other hand, was much more of a party loyalist at the national level. Because he was often up for re-election during these national contests—in 1948 when Harry S. Truman was running and in 1960 when John F. Kennedy was the Democratic candidate—he did not feel he could risk his chances by straying from the party. Although he did not face serious opposition, his margin of error, to him anyway, was never as comfortable as Byrd’s. Furthermore, in the 1952 and 1956 presidential elections he backed Adlai Stevenson, who, he believed, was one of the better nominees the party had ever put forward—and who Byrd had publicly stated he could not support.
Robertson’s unwillingness to subordinate his own interests to those of Byrd and the organization angered them, and they raised the prospect of retiring him. After the 1952 race, Byrd’s son Harry F. Byrd Jr. wrote an editorial for the Winchester Evening Star in which he singled out Robertson for having supported Stevenson to further his own career. Public criticism forced Byrd Jr. to retreat, but the relationship between the two senators had cooled. It was never severed, however; they had been through too much together and thought too much alike for that.
By the late 1950s Robertson was no longer a significant figure in the Byrd Organization, and was only rarely involved in the key negotiations about policy to follow. And he preferred it that way, although he still liked to be included in the gatherings. By the 1960s he had established himself in the Senate as the chairman of the Banking and Currency Committee and was preoccupied with legislation about housing, wage and price controls, and foreign trade.
A person of frugal and simple tastes, Robertson was a tall, good-looking man known for his chattiness and cordiality. He sang on the congressional quartet that performed for hospitalized veterans and held memberships in the American Legion, the Kiwanis Club, and the Masons. A committed Baptist, he led the Senate prayer breakfasts and challenged the Supreme Court’s ban on prayer in public schools. He had married Gladys Churchill Willis, also deeply religious, on October 19, 1920; the youngest of their two sons, Marion “Pat” Robertson, became a television evangelist and founded the Christian Broadcasting Network.
In 1966 time ran out on the Byrd Organization and Willis Robertson. After previous easy election victories, Robertson faced a vigorous challenge from Virginia state senator William B. Spong of Portsmouth, who ran on the slogan “A Man for Today,” implying that Robertson was out of touch with the times. Citing Robertson’s votes against legislation on education, water pollution, and urban mass transit, Spong criticized him as being unresponsive to the needs of a changing Virginia. Spong won the hotly contested race by a mere 611 votes. Robertson graciously resigned his seat on December 30, 1966, to give Spong some seniority. Coincidentally, Harry F. Byrd Sr. had died two months earlier.
After leaving the Senate, Robertson served as a consultant for the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development. He died in Lexington on November 1, 1971, at age eighty-four, and was buried in Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery.